The University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco G. Cigarroa said the next step in creating the new UT university in the Rio Grande Valley is to begin working with the system’s office of academic affairs along with UT-Pan American and Brownsville administrations to formulate a plan to combine the two institutions.
They are merging to create a larger institution that will have access to the $13 billion Permanent University Fund that Valley educators have wanted for decades.
“It was hard to actually begin working on this until the legislature passed it,” Cigarroa said in a phone interview.
But now, he said, “we will begin to start working with the office of academic affairs of the UT System … to take a look at all the programs for academic and administrative areas and to find out what those synergies are going to be for the next decade and how we can expand on them.”
Although the UT System Board of Regents will establish guiding principles, the work will be done with input from university administration, community leaders and elected officials, Cigarroa said.
“This is not people deciding from above,” he said.
Cigarroa estimates it could take 18 months for accreditation for the school, which has not yet been named.
A more precise timeline of how the transition would work could be presented as soon as the regents’ July 10 meeting, though Cigarroa is not certain it will be on the agenda.
The new school that emerges, he said, will be the second-largest Hispanic serving school in the United States.
Cigarroa’s vision for the school incorporates the three entities — UTB, UTPA and a new medical school — and transforms them into a “global university” and the “closest portal to Latin America,” he said.
For now, Cigarroa said the conversations have been about the new opportunities afforded to students, not about programs that might not fit into the new school’s model.
“We are going to be growing enrollment,” Cigarroa said. “We are not retracting; we are growing in the very beginning.”
Although Cigarroa said there can’t be duplication among programs, there have been no talks about which might need to be eliminated.
“This is not a negative, this is a positive. The reason why we are doing this is so we can actually build a more vibrant university,” he said. “To basically be able to create a university that has a chance to become an emerging research university.”
The vision of a global institution is one UTPA President Robert Nelsen is familiar with.
“We’ve always talked about Pan American doing that, but it hasn’t happened,” Nelsen said.
But now, with the access to the PUF money, he said it’s a definite possibility.
“We have the chance,” said Nelsen, who was in Austin on Monday to discuss the next steps with Cigarroa.
Nelsen said he hopes to incorporate distance-learning programs in Spanish for students across the border.
Aside from tuition these students would pay, Nelsen said, “We would also be creating entrepreneurial opportunities for Mexico.”
The opportunity now, Cigarroa said, is greater than before with one single university that unites the Valley than it has been in the past.
“You have a better opportunity to succeed because you have one rather than three universities competing for resources,” Cigarroa said.
Historically, he said, campuses that have been PUF-eligible have had more opportunities.
An example Nelsen uses is that for every student at UTPA there’s 127 gross square feet of campus, while at the PUF-eligible UT EL Paso there’s 203 gross square feet.
“Their students have a lot more space for laboratories, for classroom, for hangout space,” Nelsen said. “We are going to be able to catch up.”
With the difficulty to receive tuition revenue bonds from state legislators, Cigarroa said it’s more important now than ever that these schools have been granted access to the PUF.
As for Nelsen, whose university was supposed to receive millions of dollars for a new science building, he’s prepared to ask UT regents for funding from the PUF for capital improvements. UTB President Juliet Garcia has also said in the past that she would ask the regents for funding for a new campus.
Cigarroa said there will be some need for infrastructure though there will be an emphasis in technology and online learning.
According to Cigarroa, the most immediate plans include a symbolic bill-signing celebration in South Texas, though the date has not yet been announced.
“Change does result in anxieties,” Cigarroa said.
But the end result will be positive, he added.